Monday, December 05, 2005
The North American video game industry conservatively estimates revenue at over $10 billion annually and rapidly rising. Sales and profits exceed those of the motion picture industry. The release of a new video game is comparable to the performance of a blockbuster movie in the first few days of sales. It is also a well-known fact that some of the most violent games are the best sellers. So, when I came across a line in a newspaper which talked about America's Army, the video game, I wanted to know more.
America's Army is ranked the 5th most popular game available at Download.com. As a game goes, it is amazingly realistic, taking the player from intake as a recruit to missions in the field, from Boot Camp to Baghdad. And there's a good reason for the realism. The developer and the publisher is the United States Army.
This Pentagon production has its own development capture studio at the former U.S. Army facility at Fort Ord, Monterey, California. Since the Army turned on the servers in July 2002, almost 6 million users have downloaded and joined in over 94 million hours of online missions and training.
Training for what, though?
The Army has been using computer-based training (CBT), as have most modern armed forces, for many years. Simulations reduce the cost of live training, providing mental stimulation and conditioning that would normally only be achieved during field training. Weapons accuracy, for example, can be taught with excellent results before a soldier ever goes onto the rifle range. Once on the range, the soldier applies the lessons learned in simulation and can achieve remarkable accuracy. It is also effective in conditioning a soldier to kill the enemy while eliminating most of the moral conflict humans encounter over killing another human being, even in combat. And that's all well and good when it's used for its intended purpose - to train soldiers.
America's Army isn't doing that; it's training your kids. And because it's a video game, it joins a multitude of other games which focus on extreme violence and killing. The consequence of failure is a low score. If the player "kills" an innocent, he/she is simply deducted points; if a player is "killed", it is a simple matter of restarting the game or joining one of a multitude of other online missions.
Lt. Colonel David Grossman, a retired US Army Ranger, and a prominent psychologist views violent video games as conditioning young people in exactly the wrong way. He states that video games place children in a position of spending hours and hours learning conditioned responses with no discipline and no consequences. Grossman's book, Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill is a thorough analysis of the effect violent video games have on kids. He describes the shooting rampage of Michael Carneal in Paducah, Kentucky and the remarkable accuracy that a 14 year old achieved with no firearms training.
Grossman makes no bones about it - The U.S. Army should know better.
Real combat is more than just violent. It is a mind-numbing experience that, once exposed to it, most soldiers will go out of their way to avoid. Historical studies have shown that soldiers who received a higher level of pre-combat conditioning were better able to handle the extreme stress of actual fighting and were more willing to aim at and kill the enemy. In WWII a review of enemy killed during action with a standard infantry unit showed much lower numbers than would have been expected given the size of the engagement and the units involved. However, when special units were involved, airborne infantry for example, the "enemy killed" numbers increased, the airborne soldier having received considerably more conditioning.
The same is happening with kids who spend hours playing video games such as America's Army. Given its popularity, millions of young people are receiving conditioning which removes their natural aversion to killing and is increasing their accuracy with simulated weapons. It is also providing a level of motivation for kids to seek out the real thing. There's nothing wrong with that; if America's Army was just a simple recruiting tool. However, it is a quick jump to picking up an M4 and converting the gaming skill to a battle skill with the same lack of moral resistance. In short, there is an entire generation of kids with assault rifles on their computers... and they know how to use them... and not all of them are joining the army.
America's Army seems out of place in this world. It's one thing to create a violent video game as an entertainment vehicle, ignoring for the moment the problems created by that violent game, but it is quite another thing for the U.S. Army to be developing, publishing and marketing a violent video game for its own ends without accepting the consequences of the product in the hands of kids. This isn't a game of citizenship; it's a lure and it is training soldiers before they are sworn.
It's not going to go away however, so I have a couple of enhancements which might make it even more realistic and might make kids think twice before they consider killing a normal human function:
- Don't allow the user to exit or turn off the computer until they do everything required. Add screaming... lots of it. And if the user doesn't assist the wounded, have them scream all night long.
- Take over the volume control. When the simulation is Close Quarters Battle, deafen the user.
- Find a way to make the user vomit when first encountering a mangled body.
- Make the user live through the same recurring nightmare 100 times before being allowed to proceed to another "mission".
- Provide a more realistic consequence of failure. How about if the user is "killed", they can never enter the game again, ever. Better yet, disable the user's computer.... forever.
Take the fun right out of it.